The history of Christianity can be described as a battle against various superstitions, beliefs or pagan traditions – or those which are at least regarded as such. Christian ecclesiastical historiography has long emphasized, with a pleasure related closely to the economy of salvation, the alleged or real similarities between the different eras of this struggle. It remains obvious, nonetheless, that the differences between each era far outweigh any perceived similarities. By the turn of the millenium, European Christianity, for example, had been forced to adopt a defensive position, but that position, which implies an inevitable coexistence with a variety of opinions and beliefs, was of a completely different nature to the position defended during the last days of the Roman Empire.
The historic-cultural background to the battles of the new millenium can be understood with reference to the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rationalism of the Age of Englightenment, and the mysticism and pietism of the late Baroque era opened a new chapter, which was in turn closely related to the tendencies from the mid-nineteenth century, when many secret communities, spiritualist practices, and then explicitly new religions appeared, able to exert an appeal to ever greater masses of people.
The hectic events of the twentieth century significantly intensified this trend, and new beliefs emerged in a qualitatively new manner after the Second World War. Christianity tends to bracket these latest phenomena under the “New Age” title, but it is often impossible to say where the border lies between forms which manifest themselves in so many different ways.
Business considerations and psychic problems may sometimes motivate such enterprises, but so does the need for community. That need is an eloquent testimony to the potent individualism of this era, and to the current weakness of those forces, movements and traditions which normally build and maintain communities. In the course of the past one hundred and fifty years, a niche has emerged in the market for those in search of “somewhere to belong.”
Countless extreme examples of (bogus) religious movements can be found all over the world in recent years. According to the 2001 census in Britain, 390 000 Britons listed their religion as “Jedi”, after the Star Wars movie trilogy.
The movement was large enough for one Parliamentary deputy, Jamie Reed, to declare his allegiance to the new creed, though he later dismissed his remarks as a joke.
Also in the United Kingdom in 2010, the vocalist of the Saxon heavy metal band proposed that heavy metal music fans be recognised as a religious community. According to the Belfast Telegraph, Byford and his friends struck on the idea in a pub, and within days thousands joined the project through the Facebook social media site. The founders’ aim is to make “heavy metal” one of the religious options in the next British census. The new religion will have just one commandment: to listen to as much heavy metal music as possible. The idea was no doubt adopted from the success of the Jedi project, whose followers allegedly already outnumber the number of Sikhs in Britain.
Wicca witchcraft is another British invention, a neopagan religion which has become popular in many countries. It was first propagated by a British man, Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, and has even reached Hungary, where it was first registered officially as a church in 1998. After four years of legal humming and hawing, the British government has now also recognised the ancient Druids as an official religion. According to a twenty-one page report by the British Charity Commission, the Druids have a coherent system of faith and moral framework, and their work is in the public interest. The report states that the Druid Network has some 350 members, and continues the several thousand years old worship of the gods of Nature, the Sun, Thunder and the spirits of mountains and rivers.
This official recognition means that the Druid Network is henceforward exempt from paying tax, and enjoys a legal status similar to major religions like Christianity.
So when we look at the domestic “faith market” here in Hungary, the many oddities of the registered churches can be seen as proof of wider, international tendencies. The spiritual hunger of the post-Socialist world, in a country with a weakened sense of identity, has proved an even more fertile ground for the new religions than in western Europe. The inadequacy of Hungarian legislation may also be partly to blame.
The Hungarian Act IV of 1990 on the churches has from time to time been in the focus of interest. Whenever left-wing politicians had come up with the idea of transforming church financing, right-wing politicians propose that the excessive liberalism of the act be cut back. Radically opposed socio-philosophical considerations and wide disagreement over the social role of the churches lay behind the dispute.
It can hardly be disputed that the present legislation almost invites abuse.
In 1990 there were thirty-six registered churches in Hungary, including a number of congregations which existed unofficially during the Socialist system. During the years of the regime change, Hungarians could choose between the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Karma Kagyupa, Hare Krishna, and two separate Buddhist communities. Twenty years on, two hundred and thirty-one “churches” have been officially recognised, but those religious communities with actual practices based on a genuine set of beliefs, and with a multitude of believers, are few and far between on the list.
Thanks to the present legislation, an organisation called the “Church of the Community of Believers in Advanced Intelligence” and the Hungarian Witchcraft Association have the same rights as the Roman Catholic or Reformed churches. The number of such groups seems bound to multiply further, as groups try to take advantage of a provision which allows individual tax payers to deduct one per cent of their taxes to the organisation or church of their choice.
In 1990, the Hungarian Christian Democratic Peoples’ Party (KDNP) made its first attempt to tighten the law. The party proposed that Hungary adopt the Austrian model, according to which the minimum number of people necessary to found a church is 10 000, in contrast to the present Hungarian figure of just 100. Zsolt Semjén, then deputy state secretary for Church Affairs in the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage tried again without success in 1999 to propose an amendment, by arguing that such legal harmonisation would be necessary as a precondition for European Union accession. Semjén also emphasized what he called the national security risks of current legislation, but such arguments cut little ice with the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) which at that time still had deputies in the Parliament.
Tamás Bauer, an SZDSZ deputy insisted that the 1990 regulation guaranteed the equality of confessions, and complied with the principle of the separation of church and state laid down in the Constitution. In 1996, the European Union phrased a recommendation on the destructive activity of religious sects. This was partly triggered by a tragic event near Vercours in France in December 1995, when sixteen people including three children fell victim to the activities of a sect. The recommendation stated that certain sects with an international network on EU territory, which infringe human rights, imperil minors, use sexual harrassment, restrict freedom of movement, propagate racist ideology, traffic in arms or drugs, infringe the labour law or commit a string of other offences, should be banned.
Such dangers have also appeared in Hungary, and it seems a miracle that, given the sheer number of organisations registered as churches, judicial verdicts which conclude that abuse was committed have only been passed in a handful of cases.
One such case involved the Church of Universal Love, founded by József Gyurcsok in 2009, which rested on the support of seventy-four persons who made tax donations to it totalling nearly 390 000 forints (1400 Euros). In 2000, the State Prosecutor found the organisation guilty of applying “non-conventional” healing methods using the pretext of ceremonies, and of evading official authorisations necessary for practising therapy. In consequence, the organisation was not struck of the churches register, but it was forbidden to list meditation as a form of healing.
The “Community for the Dignity of Birth”, founded in 2002, exercises no healing activities and so cannot be listed as a member of this category. The community is made up of doulas and midwives, and includes among its “liturgical” activities the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation, the spiritual preparation for the loss of virginity, and the blessing of love. This can hardly be considered a religion.
Their business activity is however hardly insignificant. 3236 people donated their one per cent tax deduction to the organisation, totalling more than 12.3 million forints (45 000 Euros). In terms of the income of churches, this placed them fourteenth on the national list.
The planned change in the Churches Act is thus also a budgetary question, even if, for the time being, more than 200 organisations masquerading as churches do not register excessive incomes. In September 2010 László Szászfalvi, Minister of State for Church, National Minority and Civil Society Relations announced his intention to amend the legislation, after consulting stakeholders. Few details of the proposed changes have yet been made public, but the 10 000 member threshold seems certain to be adopted. Protests have naturally already begun, either from those who would be directly affected, or from those who, as a matter of principle, believe no stricter law is necessary. They like to mention historical parallels, even when these do not exist. The early Christian community had no tax breaks whatsoever in the Roman Empire. Or elsewhere.